Photo courtesy of Nancy Buirski
Nancy Buirski discusses her prize-winning documentary, The Loving Story, a look at a couple’s decision to remain a family and challenge Virginia’s miscegenation laws. [31:43]
Peggy Loving: They barked up the wrong tree. I guess they thought that they were poor and low class as the sheriff said they were, that they wouldn't do anything. So I guess they determined that they were gonna show 'em, they may be poor, and they may be low class as he would, but they had determination, and the will to come back and do what they need to do to be with their family."
Jo Reed: That's Peggy Loving, speaking about her parents' determination to live as a married couple in the state of Virginia. It's from the documentary called The Loving Story which was directed by Nancy Buirski.
Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host, Josephine Reed.
In 1958, Richard and Mildred Loving were married and in a matter of weeks, they were arrested for violating Virginia's miscegenation laws. Their punishment was as archaic as the law they were accused of violating: banishment from the state of Virginia or serve time in the state penitentiary. The Lovings believed they had a right be married and a right to live in their hometown. In 1967, in a landmark case, the United States Supreme Court agreed with them, and the Lovings were finally able to come home. Their little-known but significant journey is the subject of Nancy Buirski's much acclaimed recent documentary, The Loving Story which was chosen to be part of the Sundance Institute's program, Film Forward. In The Loving Story, Buirski demonstrates, that Richard and Mildred were not radicals, they were just two people in love who challenged a law they thought was unfair. And it's a story that resonates today as the country moves forward on the question of same-sex marriage. It's also a story that Nancy Buirski was in a unique position to tell. Although The Loving Story marks her directorial debut, Nancy was the founder and artistic director of The Full Frame Documentary Film Festival for a decade, so she had a great eye and instinct for telling a story through film. When I spoke with her, I wondered if it was the story of the Lovings that motivated her own move to directing.
Nancy Buirski: I was ready to step down. I'd been running Full Frame for 10 years. I felt a huge reward from having done that, but I had really started as a documentary photographer and a journalist, and I was aching to get back to my own expressive channels, and so I thought, "Well, this would be a good demarcation after 10 years." I felt the festival was doing well. It had its own momentum. It had a great staff, and I felt free to be able to move on, and it was very soon after I stepped down that I discovered the Loving story.
Jo Reed: How did you first hear about it?
Nancy Buirski: I actually read Mildred Loving's obituary in "The New York Times."
Jo Reed: And she died in 2008.
Nancy Buirski: That's right. And, you know, sometimes stories just speak to you, and this was a confluence of the right time for me being totally captivated by their story-- being kind of surprised-- well, actually shocked that that story wasn't better known. It seemed like an inherently dramatic story, but a very important civil rights story as well. So having run a film festival, one that was actually based in The South and one in which we showed many films that dealt with race and civil rights issues, I was pretty sure that that story had not been told nor had the issue of miscegenation been dealt with-- a documentary-- to my knowledge. So I quickly did some research and discovered I was right, and within a day or two I had optioned the one book that existed on them, and I was off and running. I mean, I just-- totally swept up by the story.
Jo Reed: First, let's begin by having you tell us about Mildred and Richard Loving. What was their story? Where it-- where do they come from?
Nancy Buirski: They come from Virginia. They will born in a small town in Caroline County called Central Point. They were both born there. This was a town which was rather unusual because it was-- it was a rather poor community, and, for that reason, they all worked together-- depending on each other to get the crops out-- whatever the economy was-- whether it was-- it was mostly agriculture, but there were other things, too. I think there was lumber, and they depended on each other to get ahead. And so they were, in fact, kind of colorblind, and Richard grew up mingling with Mildred's family and other blacks and Indians, by the way. There were a lot of Native Americans that lived in that area, and everybody kind of hung out together, and no one really kind of looked askance, and there were many interracial couples, but very few got married because it was very much against the law. It was a felony in 1958 in Virginia, but Richard wanted to marry Mildred, and so he decided he was going to take her to Washington DC to marry her. She was, by the way, part black and part Rappahannock, and Richard was white. So they went to Washington DC, and they married, and they came back. And five weeks later, they were arrested in the middle of the night-- literally pulled out of bed by a sheriff and two deputies and dragged off to jail.
Jo Reed: What strikes me as really fascinating about Central Point is that they went to segregated schools. There was a school for black kids. There was a school for white kids. And yet, socially, in that town, there was a lot of integration. There was a lot of mixing.
Nancy Buirski: That's right. As I said, they were thrown together for so many reasons. The parents worked together. There was really only one place to hang out. There was a coffee shop and a juke joint, and there were separate churches, and they couldn't go to the movies together, but, other than that, they hung out. Mildred's brothers played hillbilly music, and Richard would come and listen to them play. Mildred had a family of about seven or eight brothers and sisters, and Richard had far fewer in his family. So he hung out with the Jeters. That's-- that was Mildred's maiden name. So it was kind of rare and unique, and they-- the communities that surrounded Central Point actually looked askance. They weren't happy to see that kind of integration and intermingling, and when Mildred and Richard actually tied the knot, and came back and hung their marriage certificate on the wall, this really, really infuriated some of the people in the surrounding counties and particularly in Caroline County. And the sheriff-- a sheriff named Garnett Brooks-- set upon-- he went looking for them during the day-- could never find them during the day, and he finally showed up in the middle of the night and arrested them.
Jo Reed: What happened after they were arrested? Did they spend time in jail?
Nancy Buirski: They sure did. Mildred was in jail for over a week, and I visited that jail. The jail is in the film. It was a really tiny cell. She was the only woman in the jail. So she had her own cell, and Richard was in jail with other men, but he got out very quickly. His sister bailed him out, and he was able to get out. If anyone had tried to bail Mildred out, they said they were going to put Richard back in jail. So Mildred had to stay there for the full week, and so a week later, they had a hearing. And eventually, they had a trial, and they accepted a suspended sentence, which basically involved them leaving-- accepting banishment. They were to leave Virginia for 25 years. Now, banishment isn't a real punishment in our country anymore. It was during the colonies, and it's kind of ironic because it was the colonies that originally instituted anti-miscegenation laws. So banishment was, I guess, ironically the appropriate sentence on the part of a very racist judge.
Jo Reed: And that was Judge Leon Bazile?
Nancy Buirski: Bazile, yes.
Jo Reed: Bazile, sorry.
Nancy Buirski: Yeah, and he said they had to leave, and they did. Richard could have divorced Mildred and many-- and he would not have been the first person to make that decision and just live with her, but he wouldn't do it. He was a man of principle, and he wasn't going to be pushed around. The funny thing is that Richard looked like a redneck. Here's a guy who kind of fit into what would have been considered a fairly conservative group of people, and, yet, he married a black woman. He was very much in love with her, and he wasn't going to let anybody tell him he couldn't.
Jo Reed: How did you go about putting your documentary together? Where did you begin?
Nancy Buirski: I began with the lawyers. I tracked them down. They were both living in Virginia at the time, and I got them to agree to at least talk to me. They weren't sure they wanted to do this. They also warned me that the Loving family was inherently a very private family and didn't like to do interviews. Basically the children had inherited Mildred's humility and gentility, and they were not interested in drawing a lot of attention to themselves. They had already had their 15 minutes of fame, and they were ready to just go back and live their lives, but my point to them was that, you know, the story has never been told the way I felt it should be told. There had been a made-for-TV movie in 1994 or 1995, and it hadn't gotten all the facts right, and, in fact, they were a little upset by the film. So when I told them that I was really going to go out of my way to do this correctly and tell their story, they perked up. So the lawyers actually made the introduction to Peggy Loving, who was-- is now the only surviving child. At the time, there was one other boy who was still living, and she opened up to the idea. And once I had her agreement and the lawyers' agreement, I figured that I could move forward. The big challenge was how do I illustrate it? I figured there would be interviews with them, but, in fact, there were very few, and I found very little footage until the lawyers remembered that there had been a woman who had shot them in 1965. She'd spent about three or four days in Caroline County interviewing the Lovings and the lawyers, and they had no idea what had ever become of the material. They gave me her name. I tracked her down. And, in fact, she was quite a wonderful filmmaker who happened to have worked with one of my close, close friends and advisers, D.A. Pennebaker, and he remembered her quite well. And he said, "She just lives up on 81st Street and Second Avenue, and why don't you go visit her? And I bet she has it." So I called her, and she did not remember what she had done with the footage. She-- you know, older woman now, and she had done many things since then, but she had never made a film. She'd never made the film that she had hoped to make, and so she had stored that footage away. So I asked her if she'd go and look for it, and she called me back an half an hour later and said she'd found it. It was in a can in the bottom of her closet, and that footage became the real heartbeat of the film. Not only did it give me the footage that I needed to tell the story, but it's beautiful and luminous black and white footage that really helped us feel who the Lovings were. We saw them. We heard them. She shot in a cinéma vérité style. So we felt like we were almost in the room with them, and it allowed us to immerse ourselves in their story in a way that many documentaries just don't have the opportunity to do. So I was very, very lucky to have found that footage and also found a wonderful, wonderful body of work-- photographs shot by Gray Vallette [ph?] who was a "Life" magazine freelancer. Peggy Loving had many, many proofs that he had given his family, and she lent them to us. I was working by then. After the first year, I was working with another producer named Elizabeth James, and she and I had been in Virginia showing our trailer, and Peggy felt more confident after seeing the trailer, and she gave us these beautiful black and white images that also become a very important, vital part of our movie.
Jo Reed: And Hope Ryden is the name of the documentary filmmaker, correct?
Nancy Buirski: That's right. She produced it. She worked with a cameraman named Abbot Mills.
Jo Reed: Both of those were such treasure troves, and I think what is so stunning aside from the true aesthetic beauty of both the film and the-- especially the photographs-- is that neither of them showed us a cause. They showed us a family.
Nancy Buirski: I couldn't agree more. My hope was that we were going to understand their cause and their agony, in a way, and, finally, their triumph just by being with them. I-- I've kind of eschewed films that tell you how to feel and lecture you. There's some wonderful films, by the way. I'm not saying that not every film can do it the way I did it, but I was hoping that I would be able to just tell their story, and that if you felt what they felt-- if you went through it with them, then you would come out of that experience understanding the principle that was basically embedded in the story. So that was my hope, and that footage-- you're absolutely right-- did allow me to do that.
Jo Reed: How old was Mildred when they married?
Nancy Buirski: Mildred was, I believe, 17. I'm trying to remember whether she was 17 or 19. I think she was 17 when they married. She was very young.
Jo Reed: And Richard wasn't that much older. Six years?
Nancy Buirski: Six years-- six or seven years.
Jo Reed: He really is taciturn. I think that's a fair way to describe him.
Nancy Buirski: I would agree. He's very quiet.
Jo Reed: And she's quiet as well. She's not quite a talker, but there is such a gentleness in her expression and such-- oh, I don't even know quite how to express it. There is such a grace in her simplicity. It really is very, very powerful.
Nancy Buirski: You know, when I first saw the footage, it's actually before I saw Hope's footage. I did come across an interview that had been done by ABC News-- I think it was on YouTube, and I saw Mildred, and I basically fell in love. The photographs that existed that I had seen didn't do justice to that gentleness that you're referring to. It comes through in the footage beautifully, and she speaks so beautifully. She's-- she is a woman of few words, but very eloquent when she speaks, and so that was just another thing that convinced me this is a film that had to be made. She was just too important a character to not acknowledge what she had achieved because she really did drive this case. Richard was-- I think he's the moral center of the story because he insisted on marrying Mildred and not divorcing her, but she's the person who drove the legal case.
Jo Reed: They were banished, as you said, and they lived in Washington DC, but they would sneak back to Caroline County, and if not Central Point, points around Central Point to be able to see their families. They were both very, very close to their families.
Nancy Buirski: That was one of the reasons they were so miserable. I mean, when you think about it, being banished right over the border is not the most onerous punishment. I mean, they were really not very far from Virginia, and their families did occasionally come and visit them there, but the combination of having grown up in a very bucolic setting and now suddenly living in an urban setting, which was far from bucolic, it was noisy. And it was crowded, and there were cars honking all the time and not the kind of environment they were used to. That was one factor but the other really important factor for Mildred is, as I said, she had many sisters and brothers. She was especially close to her sister, Garnet, a woman that she would under normal circumstances speak to and visit every day and being away from her was a very, very difficult thing. And so, yes, she snuck back often in the boot of her car. Richard was a drag strip racer, and, you know, one of the ironies of the story, of course, is that drag racing came out of the effort to sell moonshine during Prohibition. And, you know, cars got souped up, and they would race them, and the moonshine would be in the back of the car. So here is this drag racer, who suddenly-- his biggest treasure is his wife, and he would sneak back into Virginia with his wife in the boot of the car, so she could visit with Garnet. He was a good driver. It's a good thing.
Jo Reed: She took it upon herself to contact Attorney General Robert Kennedy and asked him to take up their case because she wanted to go home.
Nancy Buirski: That's correct. She had been watching the civil rights movement unfold in front of her on television. Even though she was in DC, she wasn't really participating. She didn't march on Washington. She was not an activist. Neither one of them were, but she was watching it, and she realized that maybe if things were changing, they could change for her as well. So her cousin, who was living in the house that they were in in DC, said, "Why don't you write to Kennedy," and she did. And he, much to everybody's amazement, wrote back and said, "There's nothing that I can actually do for you, but I want you to write to one of the lawyers in the area who is volunteering for the ACLU," and that was Bernard Cohen. So she wrote to him and he decided to take the case.
Jo Reed: And that's The American Civil Liberties Union--
Nancy Buirski: That's correct.
Jo Reed: -- that she wrote to, and Bernard Cohen took up the case and worked on it with Philip Hirshkop, and they were both really young.
Nancy Buirski: Oh, boy were they. They were only just out of law school. Philip was a year younger than Bernie, and, in fact, they met each other because they coincidentally were visiting their old law school professor on the same day and Bernie was having some difficulty in figuring out how to get the case back into the court system. Let's see. They started to pursue the case in 1963, and they had been banished in 1959. So that was four years, and that was well past the period of time that normally would allow someone to reinsert a case into the system and Philip Hirshkop walked in. Now, Philip had a lot more experience in civil rights than Bernie did. He had worked for Kunstler over summers during his-- during law school. He would intern with Kunstler. They would-- he helped sign people up to (((vote))) in The Deep South, and he--
Jo Reed: And we're talking about the great civil rights attorney, William Kunstler.
Nancy Buirski: That's right. And so he had experience in civil rights law, and so Bernie and Phil became a perfect partnership because where Bernie believed passionately in helping the Lovings, he didn't have all the technical knowledge that he needed to move it forward, and Phil did. So they worked together on the case, and by the time it went to the Supreme Court, they were still pretty young. I mean, Phil couldn't even argue the case in front of The Court because he was only, I think, two or three years out of law school. So Bernie had to file a special brief just to allow Phil to be able to argue in front of The Supreme Court.
Jo Reed: And the Lovings chose not to go to The Supreme Court hearing.
Nancy Buirski: That's correct. I'm not really sure of the reason for that because when you talk to people, there are various reasons. And Bernie asked Richard if there was anything he wanted him to say to The Court, and Richard famously said, "Please tell The Court I love my wife." And that has become an iconic statement about the freedom to love and marry whom you like-- who you want to and who you should-- who you feel you should be able to.
Jo Reed: And, of course, as you're making the film, there is an extraordinary dialogue and movement in this country about same-sex marriage and who one is allowed to love legally.
Nancy Buirski: That's correct. And, in fact, it was one of the reasons I felt that this would be a film that I could make, and that I could also get out into the world. One of the biggest challenges you have as a filmmaker is not-- the biggest challenge first is finding a great story, and the second largest challenge is figuring out how you're going to show that-- how you're going to illustrate it, and then the third one which is equally important, is how do you get it out there? Who's going to be interested in it? Are you going to be able to sell it? Are you going to get it either on television or are you going to get funding for it? Are you going to put it in theaters? You know, where is the right audience for it, and how do you make sure they know about it? Well, the same-sex marriage issue was huge. The Proposition 8 was just being debated in California that summer, and it was in the news, and, you know, I was fully aware that that was heating up. In addition to that, Obama was just beginning to run for the presidency. So not only did we have the same-sex marriage issue flaring up and rightfully so, and with the Loving case being a very important precedent, but we also had the first mixed race person in the United States running for the highest office in the land. You talk about the stars aligning. It felt like it was speaking to me saying this is the story of our time. This is no longer just history. It is living history. It's a story that will reverberate and resonate for many, many years for all of these reasons.
Jo Reed: But I was really taken aback by a couple of things, and one is that Alabama was the last state to rescind its miscegenation laws, and that was in the year 2000.
Nancy Buirski: That's right. And South Carolina in 1998.
Jo Reed: And then apparently-- maybe you can confirm whether this is true or not because I-- on one hand, I'm not sure how it's possible that two years ago in Mississippi a judge refused to marry a mixed race couple.
Nancy Buirski: That's correct. I think it was Louisiana. And maybe it happened in Mississippi as well, but they-- the Louisiana case was pretty important because the justice of the peace actually lost his job as a result. So the whole question is a matter of enforcement. These laws are state laws and even though The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Lovings versus Virginia. It was not a federal ruling. It was a state ruling, but it set the precedent for most other states to go ahead, and just let their laws fall away. I mean, basically, there were 16 states at that point that still had them on the books, and many of them either had a referendum and rescinded it or didn't renew it. I mean, there were also-- the way it exists on books in various states differs from state to state. Some of them just left them there, and then, you know, people would wake up one day and say, "Hey, wait, we should be getting rid of this." And some of them leave them there symbolically. They don't want to take them away, but they know that were they to try to enforce it, then there would be a big problem because the federal government probably would step in.
Jo Reed: Your film, The Loving Story was chosen to be part of Film Forward, which is an initiative of the President's Commission on Arts and Humanities, along with the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Institute of Museum and Library Services. That's a mouth-full. Would you describe Film Forward?
Nancy Buirski: Basically, they have commissioned the Sundance Institute to run a program which travels four documentaries and four feature films-- narrative films found around the world and they pick various locations that they feel will be very receptive to the stories being told in these, and it's a way of bridging cultures. It's a way of reminding people that in many ways, we're very much alike and recognizing our differences, but honoring our similarities, and that's what we do. My film gets shown throughout the world when this organization travels, but each filmmaker only goes to one or two locations. And so I was recently in Columbia, South America, and it was a fascinating experience. I am sure the filmmakers get just as much out of this as the audiences do, but I would like to think the audiences really do benefit from seeing the films. And in my case, seeing a set of problems that-- I mean, Americans weren't even aware that this had gone on in the '50s and the '60s. So you can imagine a lot of countries abroad would be equally surprised, and they were, and they realized that we have, still, problems when it comes to racial issues. And I think it's humbling for us as a country to recognize those problems, and I think it's empowering for some of those cultures who have their own set of problems to realize that we all do at have issues that we have to deal with.
Jo Reed: What does it mean for The Loving Story to be part of Film Forward?
Nancy Buirski: Well, it's, first of all, a great honor. I respect everybody involved in these organizations so much, and to have it be picked to travel means that people feel that the film itself-- the craft, the story-- the message will resonate to people around the world. And so that's very rewarding to someone who's worked-- you work three or four years, if not more, on a movie to know that people are going to respond to it. And the way you chose to tell that story is going to have meaning to them. All I can say is it's a huge honor and a fabulous experience to be part of it.
Jo Reed: That movie is so beautifully scored.
Nancy Buirski: Thank you.
Jo Reed: I know "Going Home" is the-- as the spiritual Going Home, and to see the connection to Dvořák, was wonderful.
Nancy Buirski: Well, it was one of those moments in moviemaking-- personal moviemaking when, you know, the light bulb goes off, and you hear it. I love the Dvořák, "New World Symphony," but it had been a favorite of mine when I was growing up, and I think I even sang that spiritual in choir. And I literally was driving home one day, and heard it on the radio, and we had been in the process of scoring the film and kind of veering towards hillbilly music and blues and the kinds of things that you kind of would assume you'd be looking for-- more indigenous music. And this one-- I just said, "Wait a minute. This allows us to universalize the story. It is about everybody going home. It's not just about people living in Virginia. It is about all of us who long-- who yearn to be home." And it just became a very important motif in the film.
Jo Reed: So tell me. What are you doing now?
Nancy Buirski: I'm working on another film that really deals with the human condition and also uses some very beautiful music, but very different subject matter. There was a ballet dancer named, Tanaquil LeClercq, who was at the height of her career in the late '40s and early '50s. She danced with the New York City Ballet. In fact, George Balanchine was totally fascinated with her and made her his fourth wife. He tended to marry women that he found beautiful and who inspired him. So she was a muse to George Balanchine, and then she and The New York City Ballet traveled in 1956 to Denmark, and tragically she was struck with polio, and she was in an iron lung. She almost died and, ultimately, was paralyzed from the waist down and never danced again. So, for me, it's a film about identity and tragic twists of fate and how one copes-- how one goes on with their life. And we certainly know there are a lot of people that have had things like this happen to them whether it's polio or another disabling disease or even PTSD or some other kind of-- people that come back from the war and have lost a limb, and they have to redefine themselves. And where do they find the strength to do it? So I think I have an opportunity to deal with those issues through a very captivating set of--beautiful dance footage and music again, and I think people do think about what it means to have your life change so dramatically and how you handle that.
Jo Reed: And how your husband decides to leave you.
Nancy Buirski: Oh, yes.
Jo Reed: A charmer, that Balanchine.
Nancy Buirski: Yes, that's very interesting that you should say that. Yes, he did go on to other women. This is called, by the way, Tanaquil LeClercq: Afternoon of a Faun. And we do have a Facebook page. So I'd love if anybody who hears this decides they're interested to come and join us because it's a long journey and another one.
Jo Reed: I certainly will because she has fascinated me for quite some time. She has the most striking face, and her story is just-- it's-- you're right. It's just captivating and tragic.
Nancy Buirski: I am thrilled that you know of her. Too many people don't. And here I am again dealing with a story that seems like such a powerful one. It's so dramatic and that should have been told many, many years ago, and in some ways, it's a blessing because I get to tell it. So I feel very honored to be able to be entrusted with her life story.
Jo Reed: I really so look forward to it, Nancy Buirski. Thank you so much. Thank you for taking the time. Thank you for this wonderful film.
Nancy Buirski: You're very, very welcome. A great pleasure to talk to you.
Jo Reed: That was Nancy Buirski. She directed the prize-winning documentary, The Loving Story.
You've been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts.
Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.
Excerpts from The Loving Story, courtesy of Nancy Buirski and Augusta Films Production.
Excerpts from "Going Home” Written by Antonín Dvořák, Performed by Libra, Courtesy of Robert Prizeman
Excerpts from “Symphony No. 9 in E minor ‘New World': Largo”, Written by Antonín Dvořák, Performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Paavo Järvi, conductor
Courtesy of Extreme Music Library
Excerpts from “Symphony No. 9 in E minor ‘New World," performed by University Orchestra of Nijmegen, Frank Zielhorst. conductor
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Next week, landscape Architect and National Medal of Arts recipient, Laurie Olin
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